glitches, brain farts, errors

When you publish a book and look back over it later, you will find that some things are wrong. Those wrongnesses come in three varieties:

  1. Mechanical glitches: typos and malformatting.
  2. Brain farts.
  3. Actual errors.

People who have not published books are often appalled at typos, because they think their presence means that the book has been proofread carelessly or not at all. And sometimes proofreading can indeed be careless. But no reputable publisher wants books to go out with typos, so typescripts get read by several people — the author, the proofreader and/or copy editor, the book editor — and each of them pores over the typescript (and later the typeset text) several times. And yet some typos, and similar errors, always remain.

On the first page of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude the gypsy Melquiades comes to Macondo carrying powerful magnets, which pull all sorts of metal things along behind them, and “even objects that had been lost for a long time appeared from where they had been searched for most.” Typos are like that: they appear from where they had been searched for most. At times you’re tempted to attribute them to poltergeists. When you see them you make a note to correct them in future editions (should you be so fortunate as to have a future edition), shrug, and move on with your life.

I think of typos as mechanical problems: glitches in the mechanics of typing. These can happen in formatting too. One of the most peculiar problems I have experienced happened in the printing of my Theology of Reading, where the last two pages of the footnotes got flipped. They’re accurate but out of order. Once someone wrote to me in high dudgeon, claiming that some footnotes in the last chapter were missing and that that demonstrated my carelessness as a scholar. When I explained what had happened he wrote back in still higher dudgeon that it was outrageous that I had “allowed” so gross an error to get through. I replied that I was not present when the book was printed.

Then, sometimes you just get things wrong. Maybe you got your notes mixed up and attribute a quotation to the wrong person, maybe you thought you knew something you did not in fact know. When such errors are called to my attention, I smile a grim smile, make a note to correct the mistake in a future printing, and inwardly pledge to do better the next time.

But brain farts are the worst. A brain fart happens when you know the right thing but somehow write the wrong thing. One reviewer of my biography of the Book of Common Prayer declared that I was clearly out of my depth because I thought that Thomas Cranmer had studied at Jesus College Oxford, rather than Jesus College Cambridge. Of course I knew that Cranmer was a Cambridge man! He spent nearly thirty years at Cambridge! How could I not know that? I just had a brain fart! Thinks the skeptical reviewer, Sure you did, buddy.

And that’s why brain farts are the worst.

But sometimes they’re funny. Also in my BCP book, I mention priests bearing thurifers. In fact they bear thuribles. The thurifer is the guy who carries the thurible. So thanks to my brain fart I inadvertently conjured up an image of a priest entering the nave staggering under the weight of an altar server who, in turn, is presumably striving gamely to swing the thurible to disperse the smoke of the incense.

It strikes me that the dismissal of whole books on the basis of a few typos, or brain farts, or even factual errors is characteristic of our cultural moment, in which people tend to be categorized and defined by the worst thing they are known to have done, and often accordingly expelled from polite society. And if people, why not books? But a book is an enormously complicated project that it is simply impossible to carry out perfectly. As is life.